The structure and content of courses for finance professionals are changing, thanks to the corona crisis which is accelerating a dormant trend.

The corona crisis has left a significant mark on training finance professionals. While courses were sometimes still given in physical classrooms last year, they are banned to the screen in 2021. This has an impact on the nature of training progams, says Ivo ten Hoorn, Director of Education at Alex van Groningen, FinanceHub.nl and General Manager of Amsterdam Institute of Finance. “It is impossible to take in new material for hours on end via a screen. Therefore, we break full-day programs into shorter modules.”  

The content of finance courses is also being transformed. “Previously, we only offered modules full of knowledge within FinanceHub.nl, followed by a test and a certificate. Now we combine a module with podcasts, interviews with experts, and articles. We are no longer just pouring information in but offering tools: finance professionals can use the toolkit to boost their knowledge, based on their own preferences and utilizing the form of learning they prefer. The goal is ambitious: we want to become Netflix for finance professionals.”

The changes are not just nice; some adjustment really is necessary, according to Ten Hoorn. “People are ‘Zoom fatigued’. They miss learning from each other, the interaction with the teacher in the room, the questions you can ask immediately without waiting for an answer for fifteen minutes.”

This is especially evident at Amsterdam Institute of Finance. Classroom courses at this international institution were hardly possible at all last year due to the many travel restrictions. Ten Hoorn: “Programs sometimes depend for 70 percent on foreign participants. Furthermore, almost all our professors come from abroad: from Belgium to New Zealand and the US. Many people who enrolled for a course last year, postponed their participation in the hope that they will be able to follow the course later in-person.”

Not only the ‘look and feel’ of the programs is changing, Ten Hoorn says. The content is also shifting. “While the emphasis last fall was on technical skills for data analysis, this year the focus has shifted to translating the figures into the future. Seven of the ten most requested themes concern big data, robotics, and business intelligence.”

The development correlates with the uncertainties that the corona crisis is causing in organizations. Ten Hoorn: “As soon as the numbers begin declining, CFOs and their teams must predict a firm’s financial future. This leads to increasing significance of the finance functions.”

The themes in finance are broadly speaking the same ones that prevail in any crisis, says Ten Hoorn. “For example, there is great demand for training in liquidity forecasting, cash management and meeting payment obligations. But adapted to the present day.”

According to Ten Hoorn, this goes hand in hand with another change affecting finance professionals such as controllers: being an assertive adviser. Expectations are high: “The controller is under a magnifying glass because organizations must use their scarce resources as cleverly as possible. You can have a lot of interesting financial information at your fingertips but if you don’t get the numbers to work for you, you will miss your target.”

This requires a different type of finance professional than a decade ago, says Ten Hoorn. “Ten years ago, many financial positions still required repetitive skills. Eighty percent of the financial work was standard, the other twenty percent was varied. Now that ratio is reversed.”

“Those who pro-actively look at the cash position and give signals to the other sections of the business are the finance managers of the future. It is up to them to convert data into useful information about what is going right and wrong and where the opportunities lie. Which information is most relevant differs per organization and even per department. It is even possible to advise an airport, based on data, when the whiskey should be pushed forward at which gate.”

But, Ten Hoorn warns, data analysis is not a crystal ball. “However substantiated the advice is, it still remains a gamble. And if the work floor already knows what you managed to get out of the figures only with great effort, then you put the cart before the horse. If you’re a controller or finance manager, talk to the other departments! That way you will find out what demand there is for information. Only then can you translate data into information that is valuable to others.”

Then there is the issue of acceptance, says Ten Hoorn. “For example, salespeople are very different types from finance professionals. If they dismiss your findings, you’ll end up in discussions that get you nowhere. You can hit them hard with the numbers but you will only lose goodwill. Making your point means that you are able to control the circumstances and make the information acceptable.”

You can learn this in leadership training, for example, continues Ten Hoorn. “Colleges and universities are paying more and more attention to soft skills, such as leadership and coaching. Soft skills are harder to develop than hard skills. I think organizations are increasingly looking at whether their finance people have these skills.”

Ten Hoorn expects that finance professionals will focus on a limited number of skills that they wish to develop. “They select multi-day, in-depth programs for this. These are fundamentally different from courses of half a day or less where you regularly sit in the room with fifty people or more.”

Whether all corona adjustments are permanent? Ten Hoorn hopes not, because learning in the company of your peers has a dynamic that is difficult to replace. “If vaccines offer a solution, I expect people to want to look each other up again in a business environment in the autumn. I would also expect a catch-up effect from postponed training requests. But I see the deepening of the content and the variation of the content as permanent.”

The original article (in Dutch) published on 10 February 2021 on www.financieel-management.nl.

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